Assembly election results: How BJP’s gambit paid off in Rajasthan
Rajasthan’s vote for the BJP was a result of its national leadership and astute management of local egos, seats, and social coalitions
The fact that Rajasthan’s voters like change every five years is almost a truism of Indian politics. Be it Vasundhara Raje replacing Ashok Gehlot in 2003, or Gehlot replacing Raje in 2008, or Raje replacing Gehlot in 2013, or Gehlot replacing Raje yet again in 2018, for the past 25 years, the state has not just alternated between the two parties but has swung between two leaders. And that is why, as election season approached, the BJP began as favourites.
Except that there was a twist. On one hand, the BJP did not declare Raje as the chief ministerial candidate, and, on the other, Gehlot was seen as a strong incumbent who had the potential to break the historical pattern. Was this the moment when Rajasthan would alter its voting behaviour?
It was not to be, for as Sunday’s results showed, the BJP won comfortably, despite not having projected any leader as the CM face, and Gehlot lost, despite being, even by the admission of his opponents, a strong incumbent with a high degree of political acumen.
What explains this pattern of continuity?
Take the Congress.
There is no doubt that the deep factional divide within the party’s state unit, between Gehlot and Sachin Pilot, who has remained unhappy for five years for being denied what he thought was his rightful claim to the CM’s seat, eroded the Congress’s prospects. This factionalism was on display through the Congress’s term in office during Gehlot-Pilot spats when both were in government, during Pilot’s failed rebellion, and during the battles over party appointments and ticket distribution in recent months. But most critically, this had the impact of fracturing the party’s social coalition on the ground, with Gujjars, Pilot’s social base and a substantial backward subgroup in the state, disenchanted with the Congress. It also had an impact in terms of organisational cohesion and worker morale, with factional considerations outweighing party interest. All of it sent a message to voters — this was a party that couldn’t keep its house in order.
If the lack of party unity weakened Congress from the outset, its relatively strong welfare credentials were offset by the perceived corruption both at the state level and at the level of local legislative incumbents. Indeed, as an HT data analysis shows, the Congress lost 63 of its seats to the BJP, a massive shift by any standards.
But if politics was local, it had also the imprint of the national. Voters continue to repose a high level of trust in Narendra Modi. Modi’s campaign on welfare and against corruption, his outreach to women, backwards and Dalits, and the BJP’s projection of Gehlot government presiding over lawlessness, helped the party, as did its careful and early ticket distribution that allowed individual candidates to build profiles and support. For its part, the Congress national leadership provided little value addition to Gehlot’s campaign.
The BJP’s campaign also had a strong subtext of Hindutva, pegged on the killing of Kanhaiya Lal in the wake of his support for the then BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s comments on the Prophet and projection of a radical Hindutva leader as a possible state leader. It is hard to gauge how much impact the issues had in quantitative terms, but if nothing else, it gave the party and its core voter base a talking point to rally around.
But beyond religion and caste, anecdotal reports from the ground suggest that a key reason for the BJP’s win was the support of women voters. Women have emerged as a solid and loyal constituency for the BJP, both due to Modi’s image as a sensitive enabler of welfare in terms of goods and services that often make the lives of women easier — think gas cylinders, toilets, rural homes, drinking water — as well as the promise of order.
But the big challenge was leadership. It is an open secret that the BJP’s central leadership isn’t particularly comfortable with Raje, and Raje isn’t particularly comfortable with the central leadership. The question was whether, in the context of not being projected as the CM, she would play the spoiler or actively participate as a disciplined solider of the party. The truth lay somewhere in the middle. She campaigned and the party leadership accommodated her loyalists; yet her hope perhaps was of a slim BJP majority which would enhance her political value and leave the party leadership with little choice to back her. The BJP also threw in the mix a bunch of other leaders, from various castes, all of whom believed they had a chance at becoming the CM — thus motivating these leaders and their respective social bases to work harder than they would have otherwise.
Irrespective of what Modi eventually decides in terms of the CM pick, it is clear that Rajasthan’s vote for the BJP was a result of its national leadership and astute management of local egos, seats, and social coalitions. Rajasthan’s vote against Congress was a result of its factionalism at the state level and fatigue with the corruption at the local-level. The BJP showed it can be creative even when it made an election deliberately difficult for itself by not picking a leader. The Congress showed that there are clear limits to its creativity even when it had possibly the best chance to buck the state’s historical pattern. 2023 marks continuity. But depending on who the BJP chooses as its next leader, it may well also mark a rupture.